John Polkinghorne’s Unseen Realities

Posted on 03/22/10

An eminent particle physicist, John Polkinghorne helped make one of the breakthroughs that transformed modern physics: the discovery of the quark (an unseen but fundamental constituent of matter). He held the prestigious post of Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, but in 1979, Polkinghorne surprised many with the announcement that he planned to become an Anglican priest. Author of numerous books and articles, Polkinghorne is a Knight Commander of the British Empire, a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and the 2002 recipient of the Templeton Prize. He is founder of the International Society for Science and Religion and of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

Humility is an important virtue in the world’s great religions. What is its role in science?

It’s important in science in the sense that science often finds the world very surprising, and therefore, if we approach it with certain ideas in our minds, and we think we are absolutely right and feel proud of our intellectual ability, we may not be humble enough to realize that we need to change our views.

The most striking example of that, of course, is quantum theory. Nobody could have thought that something could be sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle. But we just had to accept that and recognize that this is just how the world works. So the line I would take about humility and science is that we must be humble before the remarkable world in which we live.

Comparing religious people and scientists, which group does humility better? Sometimes religious people claim that scientists are wildly arrogant people who think that knowledge begins and ends with them. On the other hand, many scientists see religious people as both arrogant and ignorant.

I can’t award a prize between the two groups. They both have their problems, not actually via science or via religion, but directly from human nature. Certainly scientists who make arrogant claims that science tells you everything worth knowing are making a boastful claim that just doesn’t stand up. Science tells us how the world works, but it really doesn’t try to tell us about matters of meaning or value or purpose, which are equally important. So there are, of course, in the scientific community un-humble people, who try to be imperialist about the successes of science and claim that it’s the whole story. There are un-humble people in the religious community as well — there are but there shouldn’t be — who think that their particular interpretation of the understanding of scripture or the nature of God is the one that everybody ought to accept and accept immediately. I think in both communities there are substantial numbers of people who are simply truth-seeking people and who are looking for motivated belief and are prepared to change their beliefs if they find that evidence and experience make them do so. And they are the people, on both sides, who show the cousinly relationship between science and theology in the search for truth.

Do science and religion approach reason in different ways? Is the reasoning of faith different from the reasoning of science? Can either help the other to get a more complete understanding of the universe?

I suppose the answer is yes and no. I think both science and religion are concerned with the search for motivated belief. They are not just plucking ideas out of the air but they have reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true. But the way they seek them is somewhat different. Science is looking at the world as an object — as an “it”—which you can pull apart and do with what you want. And with science you can repeat things. You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on. And that gives science a great secret weapon. But there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension. Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated. If we listen to a Mozart quartet, even if we play the same disc twice, we shan’t experience it in quite the same way on each occasion. Similarly, the encounter between persons, even more the encounter with the personal reality of God, has to be based on trusting and not on testing. If I were always setting little traps to test my friends, I would pretty soon destroy the possibility of friendship between us. And certainly religion respects that you shall not put the Lord your God to a test. So there are differences between the two. But the motivation, the search for truthful understanding through well-motivated belief, is a common feature. Of course, religious understanding is much more complex obviously because of its personal character.

You’ve made a powerful argument for religion. Now can you tell me what, exactly, humility is in your tradition? Does it crush human beings or bring them to fulfillment? Do we need religion to bring about humility? Is it a virtue in the secular world too?

Let me deal with the second point first. I think that there are lots of virtues that are central to the religious life — humility is one, compassion will be another — but religious people don’t have a monopoly on these things. Many, many people realize the power of goodness, the power of humility, and the power of compassion. Atheists can be humble in their capacities as truth-seeking people. The only difference in that respect is that I think that we religious people know where these things come from — they come from intuitions of God’s good and perfect world, the grace of God. Humility involves two things: first of all, it involves recognizing who we are, what our status is. The fundamental mistake, I think, is to believe that we are somehow beings who can do it on our own. The fundamental mistake is for creatures to think they are the creators. Doing it my way is not, I think, the recipe for a good and fulfilling life. I think we need the grace of God to help us; we are not fated to be independent in that sense. God wishes us to act freely and to embrace divine mercy freely. But God knows that we need His grace and humility in order to do that. So humility is concerned first of all with recognizing our status. More generally, it seems to me that humility is concerned with recognizing and responding to the reality of things. Humility isn’t the Uriah Heep sort of thing, where clever people try to pretend that they are stupid, or beautiful people try to pretend that they are ugly. Humility recognizes things as they are and sees ourselves as we are, and helps us to be grateful for the gifts that we have, to recognize that we certainly don’t have all the gifts, and to be equally appreciative of other gifts when we see them in other people. Humility is to rejoice in the success and fulfillment and gifts that other people possess so that we don’t always have to be top of the class or get more gold stars than anybody else.

Is it important to be able to prove the existence of God?

Well, I don’t think it’s possible to prove the existence of God. There are many things I don’t think you can prove in an absolutely cast-iron, logical way. You can prove that two plus two equals four; you can’t prove the foolishness or falseness of ridiculous assumptions. I could maintain that the whole world came into existence five minutes ago and that our memories of the past were created at that moment. I don’t think you could defeat me in logical argument about that, though we all know that would be an absurd thing to say. So proof, cast-iron proof, is pretty limited and not actually a very interesting category of things. I believe in quarks and gluons and electrons. I believe that’s the most intelligible, economic, persuasive interpretation of a whole swath of physical phenomena, but I don’t think I’ve proved their existence in the two plus two equals four sense — just as I can’t prove the existence of God. What we need, I think, is beliefs that are sufficiently well-motivated for us to feel that we can commit our lives to them, knowing that they may be false, but believing that they are the best explanation. I’m very sold on motivated belief but I am not sold on knowledge through proofs either in science or religion, or anything in between.

What is motivated belief?

I call myself a bottom-up thinker. I try to move from experience to understanding, to look at experiences, which may be our own experiences or accounts of others; in fact, in the religious case, they are very extensively accounts of experiences other people have had which we believe are being truly described to us and which support particular beliefs we are seeking to embrace. It means that we don’t just sit and dream things up out of our heads. It’s very important that we deliver ourselves from fantasy. You see, I think that the fundamental question about something, whether science or religion, is not, “Is it reasonable?” as if we know beforehand what is reasonable, or what shape rationality has. The better question is, “What makes you think that might be the case?” If you are going to propose something surprising and counterintuitive to me, then you need to produce evidence, something to persuade me that that might be the case, perhaps experiments. That is motivated belief. It contrasts with top-down thinking. Top-down thinkers have certain big ideas, clear and general ideas, which, if you grasp, they have the key to understanding everything. I think it’s the other way around. I think you should start at the bottom and the ideas will grow out of experience rather than being imposed upon it.

Does quantum physics make deism’s God obsolete?

Quantum physics shows, I think, that physics has not proved the closure of the world in terms of its own laws and equations. Physics can’t tell us that the exchange of energy between bits and pieces is the only thing that is going on in the world. Quantum theory, and in a different way chaos theory, have a more subtle picture of the world. If the world were simply mechanical, as people thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it would just be a gigantic piece of cosmic clockwork, and its creator would be an unseen cosmic clockmaker. That’s the creator who just makes the clock and lets it tick away. Quantum theory is something more subtle than that. We can believe a world in which we ourselves interact — we’re not clockwork at all — and we can believe in a world in which God interacts. We can believe in a God who doesn’t just sit and wait for it to happen but is involved in the unfolding of creation.

Aldous Huxley, who wrote about scientific and religious matters, moved a long way from the atheism of his grandfather, T. H. Huxley. I’ve wondered if it wasn’t the earthy aspects of Christianity that turned him off. Not rarified enough for Huxley?

You might be absolutely right about that. There are certainly people who are very much open to spiritual reality but who want it in a slightly ethereal form. One of the things that is attractive to me is — as I believe William Temple put it — that Christianity is the most material of the world’s religions. It’s concerned with the word made flesh; it’s concerned with embodiment, as in the resurrection of the body. Of course, it’s concerned with spiritual reality, but it wants to hold the two together. That absolutely rings bells with me. I don’t think that human beings are destined to be, so to speak, apprentices of angels. I don’t think our destiny is to get rid of this encumbrance of the fleshly body and just float off into some sort of spiritual atmosphere. I think we are embodied beings.

Do you think that the diversity of the world’s religions — I am referring especially to the non-Abrahamic religions — poses a challenge to religious belief?

Yes, I do. I think there are two great problems for religious people. First, there is the problem of evil and suffering. The second problem, which is really pressing at the moment, is the question of how the world’s faith traditions relate to each other. They are almost all thinking about the same domain of human experience. They have certain commonalities. All the world’s faith traditions commend compassion, for example. They are all operating in the same sort of area, but they have such different things to say about it. Just take the question of human nature. The three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — see the human person as of unique and abiding significance. Our Hindu friends see the human person as being recycled through reincarnation. Our Buddhist friends think life is an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing in different cultural languages. They are three sets of people saying different things. I think that the dialogue among the world’s faith traditions is just beginning. I think it will be long and painful, but I don’t think the answer is to look for a lowest common denominator. When you do that you get a very anemic picture of religion.